Launch? Launch!

By Julianne Dalcanton | May 11, 2009 8:12 pm

One word: AWESOME.

Ok. A couple more words. The launch was spectacular, and went off on time and without a hitch (beyond a bit of ice on part of launch vehicle, but that they got off at the last minute). We did wind up at Banana Creek, and the view was primo. There were a bit of low clouds, so we lost sight of the shuttle pretty quickly and couldn’t see the separation from the boosters. But, the short time we could see it was completely worth it. The noise was terrific — low and rumbly, then building to dense crackles like the finale to the biggest fireworks display ever. I also wasn’t prepared for how intense the light of the engines was. You really couldn’t look right at it without discomfort. My favorite moment was probably when the smoke started pouring out of the base of the launch assembly, when you really knew “Holy crap, it’s gonna go!!!!”. Everyone was screaming and pointing and whooping it up. I did wish the President had come, because I get the sense that Obama doesn’t yet buy into the promise of spaceflight — I don’t see how he couldn’t have been moved and impressed by so many people with so much expertise coming together to make something so amazing happen.

And then five minutes later everyone was back on the air-conditioned buses trying to get the heck out of the 90+ degree heat and humidity.

From what I’ve gathered from NASA-TV and from conversations at various parties(*), the mission is going well. A camera on the robotic arm has scoped out the outside of the shuttle, and last I heard all looked pretty good, although they did go back for a second look near the nose. They’ve now safed Hubble, getting ready for it to be grappled on Wednesday a bit before noon. EVA’s (i.e. spacewalks) start on Thursday.

Other random notes:

Favorite free trinket? You know those little charms that kids decorate their Croc’s with? Ball Aerospace was giving out ones shaped like the Hubble Space Telescope.

Favorite item from the gift shop? NASA astronaut oven mitts.

Favorite unexpected surprise? Kennedy Space Center is in the middle of a nature preserve, so it’s teeming with wildlife. We’ve seen gators, raptors, vultures, bald eagles, turtles, and a crazy assortment of long-legged shore birds.

Least enjoyable moment(s)? Lines in 95 degree heat, with no shade. Followed by more lines. Seriously — it’s crazy trying to get that many people into secured launch viewing areas. We got there almost five hours before the launch, and still probably spent two of the intervening hours waiting in one line or another. When your kid voluntarily turns down ice cream in the burning sun because the lines are too long, you know it’s bad.

(*) Parties? Yes, shuttle launches seem to be like the Oscars.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    I am soooooooo jealous.

  • Nick Cross

    Saw Servicing Mission 3b in March 2002. That was at ~6am, so no 95 degree heat. In fact the day before they had scrubbed the launch because it was so cold. I also loved the Apollo-Saturn V museum beside Banana Creek. I hope that Servicing Mission 4 goes as well. The crew contains several who were in SM3b – Scott Altman, John Grunsfeld and Mike Masissimo. Hope you enjoy all the rest of your time in Florida.


  • Hiranya

    **Intense jealousy**

  • Bee

    Watching a shuttle launch, I never can decide whether I’m proud that mankind has come so far, or whether I’m embarrassed because some alien species might think, gee, how primitive.

  • John Farrell

    Fantastic. I hope Obama does rethink the commitment to space flight.

  • Doug

    Obama does indeed buy into the promise of human spaceflight. He referred to emotional attachment to it and passion for it several times during the campaign and since, more than his opponent did, and much more than his predecessor had done for years. What he doesn’t buy into, and shouldn’t yet, is the Constellation architecture that is now being developed to do it. That architecture has some significant problems, not the least of which is a cost that is anticipated to be vastly larger than what was promised. The recently announced review of this architecture is, at best, a way for the current White House to get ownership of and express confidence in this architecture and, less comfortably, a rationale to pull the plug on what might have been a big mistake.

  • Spiv

    Glad you enjoyed it! I walked over to in front of the LCC, and was only out in the heat for perhaps 30 minutes or so, and it was still a scorcher. You definitely got here on one of the hotter days.

    lolz @ raptors. We do have some unique wildlife out here.

    Couple pics at the link in my name from the launch (and before) if anyone is interested.

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    Yes, I have also heard about the problems with Constellation architecture. Direct 2.0
    seems to be a better approach, does anyone know if Direct 2.0 is being seriously re-considered ?

  • Spiv

    Fermi-Walker Public Transport: Administration has dispatched a review panel to check everything out. Not sure what exactly is on the table in reality, but they said “everything.” I’ll work on whatever needs to be designed, so I’m not much concerned with it just yet.

    Problems with constellation, IMO, are normal for developing a new spacecraft (something about the difficulty of rocket science in general). Cost and schedule issues are pretty typical for this sort of thing, partially because of overly optimistic/political scheduling, and partially because of going the first several years unfunded (bush layed out his “vision” and never coughed up the cash to make it happen. NASA had to clip other programs to do it, which of course is not exactly the commitment level I’d prefer).

  • mandeep gill

    Julianne- thx for the report — haven’t ever seen a space launch, doubt i’ll ever see a shuttle launch in person before they end, so it’s good to get these reports. and this mission matters a *lot* to all us astronomer-types, of course — Grunsfeld is an amazing fellow, with a huge emotional attachment to HST, and i trust the mission to go as well as it possibly can in his hands.

    As far as human spaceflight — this is a long discussion, but briefly, one more opinion: though we *will* get off this planet eventually, colonize the Moon, ultimately probably terraform Mars, and eventually get beyond, i have come to feel that generally, i just don’t think the tradeoff at *this time* is very worth it.

    I would *much* rather have a bunch of very cost-effective unmanned probes go forth and tell us if there are any actual oceans under Europa’s crust, any microbes on Titan than a few more incredibly expensive glitzy spaceshots of humans walking around the Space Station while getting very little actual science done etc. i think the emotional impact of the distant probe missions is very palpable as well.

  • coolstar

    Glad you enjoyed the launch Julianne. Personally, after watching Challenger and knowing that the odds are roughly 1/100 for a similar disaster at every launch, I can’t even bear to watch them on TV anymore.

  • Julianne

    coolstar — I definitely worried about launch problems, especially taking a kid.

    I’ll do another report when I get back into town — today I got to go on a semi-private tour of Kennedy. Got to see the Mercury and Gemini launch sites, the Vehicle Assembly Building, part of the Ares 1-X rocket that they’re testing out in August, the launch pad for Atlantis, and the pad for Endeavor (still on the pad, as backup for a potential rescue mission). Lots of pics, but no way to download them at the moment.

  • Kai Noeske

    Yay!!! Witnessed the exact same a few miles further out – heat, humidity, glaring sun, mile-long line to sold-out ice cream truck, sudden smoke and amazement, glaring light, quick ascent, rumble crackle, clouds, applause. And bought the oven mitts, too :)!!!

  • Claire C Smith


    Brilliant! ! (post style and topic).


  • Tod R. Lauer

    Hi Julianne,

    Some time I’ll have to show you the notes I took at the HST launch in 1990 – very similar! Everyone so hyped the noise that I really wasn’t so impressed by it – but the brilliant golden light from the solids was a complete surprise! Likewise, you see the steam heated up by the mains as the first sign that something’s going on, but from the distance and with sound travel time, it’s pretty subtle. Mainly though, one is impressed by the power. When people whine about the Hubble and other NASA enterprises, it’s worth remembering the seven astronauts riding in the center of that explosive maelstrom so you can write your ApJ papers.

  • Darrell E

    I can understand people hyping the sound, and other people being disappointed by it when they finally see a launch themselves. I saw the first shuttle launch in 1981. My father was working in the shuttle program at the time so we got VIP passes. I don’t know the name of the area that we viewed the launch from, but it was close. Closer than the launch control building. After that first launch NASA decided that it was too close and, as far as I know, has not let people that close since.

    The sound was truly awesome at that first launch at that close viewing site. The sound quickly increased to a point that your hearing seemed overloaded, and all you could hear was an overwhelming static or crackling sound. I remeber looking down at my shorts and seeing them vibrating. I could feel pressure inside my body, and it felt like my internal organs where shaking. Some people felt a bit quesy. It was really, really awesome. I went through a 36 exposure roll of film with my father’s Olympus OM-2, without an autowinder, by about the time the shuttle cleared the tower.

    But, I just watched this current launch on Monday from the Visitor’s Center, much further away, and the sound was rather disappointing compared to that first launch back in 1981.

  • RBH

    Julianne wrote

    Kennedy Space Center is in the middle of a nature preserve, so it’s teeming with wildlife. We’ve seen gators, raptors, vultures, bald eagles, turtles, and a crazy assortment of long-legged shore birds.

    Back in the early 1960s when I was at the Cape (yeah, it was “The Cape” then) working on Polaris, it was also full of snakes of various and sundry persuasions, including a lot of rattlesnakes. It made walking between buildings interesting sometimes. :) With all the launch failures in the early stages of the Polaris program, we took to calling the A1 Polaris the ‘snake killer,’ because every destruct by the range safety officer a few seconds after launch blew chunks of burning solid rocket fuel around the place and burned off a few acres. I still can’t figure out how we managed to avoid dropping pieces of it on Cocoa Beach.


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